[Beowulf] about clusters in high schools

H.Vidal, Jr. hvidal at tesseract-tech.com
Mon Jan 30 15:16:53 PST 2006

Robert G. Brown wrote:

> Absolutely indeed.
> My "excellent anecdotes" on this subject are basically derived from:
>   a) The experience of guiding maybe a couple dozen high school kids at
> various points in time through the building of their first beowulfs,
> usally with little or no support from their schools, all done offline.
> I get a lot of people who just write me directly saying 'hey, I want to
> build a beowulf, how should I go about doing it'.
>   b) Experience derived from directly supporting a community college
> effort to build a beowulf engineer/administrator training program (where
> Wake Tech CC outside of Raleigh is the local branch of this NSF funded
> initiative).  I have met several high school instructors who were
> interested in self-training themselves to where they COULD support such
> a program at the high school level at various meetings and symposia
> presented within the program.  This has taught me a very serious other
> side of the story.
>   c) My knowledge of what most schools have and can provide in terms of
> infrastructure at least around here in NC.  Not too easy to extrapolate
> to "all schools" but again, it gives me some insight on the difficulty
> of establishing suitable programs.

Fortunately, it seems that this particular school has a lot of available
infrastructure. That is, there are lots of machines, lots of networking
hardware, but most notably many very smart students and many
ambitious and talented members of faculty. This is why I thought of
this situation as nearly ideal for this experiment.

>> From this, there is good news and bad news.
> The good news is that bright kids DO like to build beowulves in high
> school (including in schools in e.g. India, not just in the US!).  In
> nearly any school you'd have 5-15 students who would be perfectly happy
> to immerse themselves in it and have a great time doing so with ANYTHING
> like encouragement.
> The bad news is that the ones who succeed generally do so without any
> meaningful support from their school.  Sometimes not even with access to
> school-owned machines as a resource.  Almost never with anything like
> mentorship within the school itself.  They scrounge machines themselves.
> They find switches.  They learn about linux (usually from me telling
> them EXACTLY how to install a functional version for free on their
> scrounged hardware).  They find toy problems to play with.  Then alas,
> they graduate and move on, leaving very little that survives or might be
> used to turn into a "program".

Well, the concept we have (in the few days this has been going) is to test
and build out an infrastructure where this would be part of the school's
facilities, and also ultimately part of the school curriculum.

> Why so bleak a picture?
> Well, for one thing Windows overwhelmingly dominates as the OS installed
> in most schools.  It is so pernicious a phenomenon that they don't teach
> "spreadsheets", they teach "using Excel".  They don't qualify students
> with an end of grade test on "word processing", they qualify students
> with a test on "using Microsoft word".  That this is Evil beyond all
> measure is beyond any doubt -- imagine the screams if one had to take
> all drivers tests in a state using a Ford.  On the other hand, the
> schools are crippled by the near-vacuum in computer competent teachers
> in general -- it is doing as much as they can to end up with somebody
> that can teach "using Word" or "using Excel" as part of "keyboarding".

Yes, Windows makes computer people dumb. It's really as simple as that.
And since for the quite young, computers are sexy because you can IM,
and can play/store music, and can do whatever is socially relevant to a
teenager, the idea of an alternative platform to be used for actual *work*
on a computer is, at first, somewhat puzzling.

Also of note, at least in this school, I understand that some of the 
pioneers' in the school started in CAD, where (at least in modern times) 
and windows dominate. So their thinking is that, since these vendors bring
in so much money and have historically given to much to the school, there is
little reason to change.

> Note that few schools even have a local systems administrator.  They
> hire out all of the management of the school's networks to an outside
> contractor, who locks down everything and is responsible for securing
> everything and is MOST NEGATIVE about the thought of kids building a
> supercomputer system "inside" the school's network where it could wreak
> untold mischief.  A point of view I'm not totally negative toward, by
> the way.

Again, in this school, the admin is tip-toed around when it comes to network
connected tasks. Everything is windows based, and the few comp-sci teachers
I have been chatting with suggest that making a cluster *must* be done sort
of quietly, at first, and certainly NOT connected to the network.

Again, it's sort of about control.

> Even the relatively progressive schools that DO know what linux is, that
> DO have a faculty person with some experience in linux (rarely
> "professional grade" experience, unless the person involved is a true
> saint, as anybody with pro grade experience can make 3-4x the salary of
> a high school teacher without even trying hard), don't have the LEVEL of
> experience in networking and supercomputing to be able to support a
> beowulf program meaningfully.  That's what the Wake Tech thing showed
> me.  Teachers from schools would need e.g. community colleges LIKE WTCC
> with programs where they could teach the teachers, before there will
> ever BE any teachers that can teach this as a course or part of a
> meaningful high school experience with some continuity.
> The long term solution to the problem, perhaps, is to do what Doug and I
> and many others have been working on for years -- create a sufficiently
> robust and strong set of web based resources, including the PEOPLE (many
> of whom are on this list) who are able and willing to act as mentors, as
> teachers of teachers, as supporters of CC programs to formally train
> teachers -- that one can bootstrap the process, where any bright student
> CAN build a beowulf at a school, where a faculty person working with
> them CAN learn about linux and supercomputing in the process, where
> there IS a chance that a program can be born out of the experience.
> Fortunately, building a simple beowulf is pretty easy -- it CAN be done
> "almost" from a recipe.  Things like warewulf make it easier than ever,
> almost to the point where one can say "boot all these boxes with this
> CD, starting with the server node, answering questions as the nodes come
> up" to build a cluster with "no prior knowledge" of linux or cluster
> computing.  That shrink-wrapped level is where it needs to be to get at
> least SOME groups started.  From there there are plenty of pathways to
> learning what's actually happening "under the hood", ways to learn about
> process parallelism, task scaling, system administration, networking and
> much more.  It IS a tremendously rich subject that primes a student for
> almost any kind of career or college program in IT-related studies in
> science, social science, math, or even the traditional humanities.
> I keep hoping that we see more of this, but I also recognize that the
> obstacles are still pretty significant.  Ultimately it may be the
> parents, or changing the way the Government recognizes "standards", that
> drives a movement to linux in schools and the consequently greater
> degree of learning about systems that would enable.  I see that
> happening in Europe and Asia, but not (alas) so much here...
>     rgb


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